Young or seasoned, there’s no doubt that we all function better when our bodies are stronger and more physically healthy. But, have you ever stopped to think about how your body, and specifically your muscles, actuallybecome stronger? If you are like most people, you probably think the answer is simple: to get stronger, simply lift weights regularly, and get plenty of meat in your diet for protein!
This message has been reinforced by the meat and dairy industries for decades now, so it’s not uncommon to think this way. But breakthrough new information on the science of muscle during aging has changed the way we think about how the body gets stronger. In fact, a lot of what we thought we knew has gone straight out the window.
Recent findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience regarding how the body builds strength were really astounding. Even many people who follow a plant-based diet often believe it isn’t possible to have a strong physique without protein from meat. If that’s you, then you may be shocked to learn that not only does growing stronger not require meat at all, it really isn’t all aboutmuscles either.
Understanding the New Science of Building Strength
Before we dive into this new science, let’s look closer at the benefits of physical strength, including why it’s so important tomaintain strength as we age and strength’s connection tolongevity. To be clear, we are not talking about building massive biceps or being able to bench press a small elephant — while both of those are impressive and do require a fair amount of strength, they are the extreme end of the spectrum and not what we are focused on here.
From a scientific standpoint, physical strength is defined as the measure of exertion required to overcome a specific force. Now that can mean many different things to different people; so it makes sense to measure physical strength from apersonal standpoint. Individual physical strength is the level of fitness required to achieve yourphysical and life goals. Based on this definition, personal physical strength might include:
- Walking up five flights of stairs without being winded.
- Running a 5k
- Being able to carry your 5-year old granddaughter on your shoulders
- Bench pressing heavy weights
- Lifting more weight than you did last week
- Keeping up yoga class
- Just being able to perform your daily routine withoutfeeling tired or weak
For years, it’s been somewhat accepted science that getting stronger requires you to build up your muscles. Now, to an extent, that is true — but researchers have discovered that when the body is building strength, it’s not your muscles that get stronger, (at least not at first). Believe it or not, it’s actually yournervous system that initially responds to exercise by becoming stronger.
Scientists have long understood that strength-building requires some form of connection between the muscles and the brain, but until recently it just wasn’t clear how that worked. What scientists found is that as we do certain forms of exercising, knownstrength-training, the brain sends messages to the muscles being engaged — but what also happens, and happens before your muscles actually get stronger, is that there is a distinct change in a set of nerves known as yourprimitive reticulospinal nerve tract. As exercise progresses, these nerves appear to send increasingly stronger, more urgent commands to the muscle — so, in essence, the nervous system becomes stronger, allowing your muscles to respond to stronger, more frequent signals and your muscles then become stronger as a result.
According to Dr. Isabel Glover, a neuroscientist and author of a new study that explains all this, we now know that strength isn’t just about muscle mass; you actually get stronger because of increased neural input to your muscles.
Why Are These New Findings So Important To How We Go About Developing Strength?
These findings are important for a lot of reasons, but what we want you to take away from today’s post is that just because your muscles are not getting bigger, it does not mean that you are not getting stronger. In fact, nearly everyone who exercises gets stronger, however, not everyone — especially older folks, women, and children — will add muscle mass as they get stronger, no matter how long they exercise. So don’t give up if you aren’t seeing the results you expect in the mirror, because you are getting stronger and your body is becoming healthier. Strength isn’t about the size of your muscles, and it is also not about eating tons of meat. In fact, you can build strength without eating meat.
How to Build Strength — Without Meat
The meat-equals-muscle myth has been around nearly as long as muscle itself! Fueled by muscle bound action stars, nearly every doctor, health expert, and competitive athlete has recommended and/or used high amounts of protein, and specifically meat, as part of their strength and muscle building programs for decades.
However, as we learn more about building muscle and getting stronger, we are finding that once again, what we thought we knew about packing in the protein is not necessarily what’s best for our overall health. In fact, eating large amounts of meat could even be counterproductive to your long-term health — and it isn’t even needed for building strength!
Studies show that your body doesn’t require nearly as much protein, whether it beanimal protein orplant-protein, as we’ve been told. For years, many athletes were taught to eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight when trying to build strength and muscle.
We’ve since learned that our bodies don't require nearly that much. Now, this doesn’t mean you do need a certain amount of protein every day. Your body needs protein to not only build strength and muscle, but also for basic functions likehair growth, repair of cells, immune system health, and more.
According to research reported by Harvard Health, the actual recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight (NOTE: a kilogram is 2.2 pounds). So, what that means is that we should be looking to consume protein in the ratio of closer to ⅓ of our body weight in grams — for example, a 150-pound man would need about 55 grams of protein each day to maintain basic body functions; that’s much less than the 150g previously recommended as a way to build strength.
Plant-Based Sources of Protein: The Healthy Alternative
As we continue to better understand the benefits ofplant-based diets, and specifically plant-based proteins, we are learning that you can continue to build strength and musclewithout meat. Research continues to show similar, and in some studies greater strength gains when consuming protein solely from plant-based sources like lentils, tofu, edamame, black beans, kidney beans, nuts, quinoa, spirulina and seeds.
There are also now plant-based protein powders available as a supplement, should you need them. The combination of pea and quinoa in a protein powder seems to be best of all (check outSmarter’s Complete Protein).
Keeping Up Strength As We Age
Strength isn’t always about bulking up our muscles, it’s about building functionality to further our quality of life. For some, this might include more intense weight strength-training; for others, it could involve dailyyoga practice. In the end, it’s important to know that exercises to challenge your body and build strength are very important as you age. They build strength in both your nerves and your muscles, and you can do all this while enjoying a diet with more plants than meat.